Health Messaging Is Kiss of Death

If a restaurant chain aimed at mainstream consumers creates a new healthy food offering, the way to guarantee it flops is to create a special menu section labeled “Healthy Menu Options.”

Why is this? The most logical explanation is patrons get the message as, “These products don’t taste good enough or satisfy sufficiently to be on our regular menu.” If there’s a delicious, satisfying option that also happens to have healthy attributes, why isn’t it on the menu for everyone to buy? Putting it on a separate “healthy” menu is the kiss of death.

Logos identifying dishes as healthy, low carb or low calorie aren’t much better. Long experience says this kind of marketing shifts attention to the utilitarian benefits of the food, detracting from the emotional attraction that motivates purchase.

We have less data on the impact of health claims at the deli counter. Because many people view eating out as a treat, they may well be particularly resistant to utilitarian claims in a restaurant. When shopping for day-to-day purchases for home consumption, they may be a bit more open to healthy product claims. Maybe.

Certainly, it can be useful to have guides available for consumers who have particular dietary needs, such as diabetes or hypertension. Signage indicating products are vegetarian or vegan can also be helpful, especially if their contents are hard to discern visually. Black bean soup can be a delight for vegetarians or ham lovers!

Still, overt health claims are problematic, not least because at retail we don’t typically sell complete diets; we sell individual foods. Some delis do a nice job, for example, selling mini-cheesecakes. Although some are lower in calories or fat than others, calling any of them “healthy” is a bit odd. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with eating the full-calorie version as an occasional indulgence. In fact, the first thing most dieticians or nutritionists will tell you is there’s no such thing as a healthy or unhealthy food — it’s the quantity and combination that makes a diet healthy or not. Even then, a lot has to do with the individual. A 6’ 4” 18-year-old male martial artist who lifts a weight, runs and swims for recreation has a lot of leeway in what he eats. Attributes presumed to be healthy — say low calories — might not be relevant to him.

In addition, the science on many nutritional issues is not well settled. It’s true the USDA has recommended lower sodium intake and the FDA is considering reducing the recommended sodium levels. Still, a study published this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association is more subtle. It finds that though high levels of salt intake are associated with an increased risk of stroke and heart attack, low salt intake is associated with a higher risk of death and hospitalization due to congestive heart failure. This study found moderate salt intake is optimal. This complex story isn’t easy to reduce to a label or sign.

The interplay between food satisfaction and consumption is also not well understood. Although it may seem healthier to sell a lo-cal version of something, if that product doesn’t satiate, the consumer might eat more to compensate. The deli department needs to be especially mindful of this dynamic as delis typically sell a broad array of product. Some of this may be a “health salad” inherently low in calories, and some of it may be specialty cheese rich in fat and calories.

Deli executives have good reason to be hesitant to claim one product is “healthy” and the other “not healthy,” and, truth be told, it’s very plausible consumers who buy rich satisfying foods may wind up satiated and thus eating less than those who buy a less satisfying product.

In light of these issues, a focus on “healthy food” seems difficult to execute wisely. Perhaps a better approach would be to continue the long-term trend in delis toward selling higher quality food. It wasn’t that long ago that the deli case was filled with pimento loaf and bologna. These processed products have fallen out of fashion and given way to whole muscle meats, such as good quality roast beef, turkey, and ham. The processed cheeses that were all many consumers knew 30 years ago are now crowded out by an array of fine specialty cheeses.

Offering products that don’t satisfy, that don’t taste good, that one would not want to offer to all consumers in the name of selling “healthy foods” is a fool’s errand. The way to crack the consumer interest in healthy eating is to find innovative products that stand on their own in terms of flavor and mouth feel — and also happen to have many healthy attributes. This often involves looking at cuisines, such as the Mediterranean, Asian and Latin American, which do not traditionally encompass a lot of highly processed foods.

Offering high quality, delicious foods is the mark of any successful deli operation. If you do it right, you’ll have plenty of healthy options to delight consumers and encourage higher sales and more frequent visits.